April 11, 2021

Illinois launches small business COVID safety program to help workers and customers returning to the office

After six months of working from home, many small businesses are facing a new challenge — how to safely return to the cubicle farm in the age of COVID-19.

The Illinois Department of Labor is launching the “Back to Business” program to help small businesses protect workers and customers as they begin to reopen.

“There’s so many businesses now that are wanting guidance on how to come back safely,” Mike Matulis, an Illinois Department of Labor spokesman, said Wednesday. “This is aimed at giving them the best guidance for keeping their customers, employees and visitors … from getting sick.”

Open to businesses with 250 or fewer employees, the program combines online training with a virtual consultant — a Department of Labor employee — to navigate everything from configuring office space to quarantining a symptomatic sales manager.

The initiative is primarily funded by a 45-year-old federal small business workplace safety program. Illinois received a $1.9 million federal grant for the On-Site Consultation program for fiscal year 2020. The Department of Labor allocated $400,000 of the federal funding for its COVID safety program, matched by $40,000 from the state, Matulis said.

“Our consultation program has been going on for years,” Matulis said. “We have people on staff who deal with that in general. Basically, any business with 250 employees or fewer can come to us for help with health and safety matters, and that has existed pre-coronavirus.”

Matulis said helping small businesses implement best safety practices during the pandemic will “provide a heightened level of exposure” to the ongoing federal program, which offers workplace health and safety “consultation and correction, not enforcement.”

The “Back to Business” program will pair Department of Labor health and safety consultants with small businesses based on industry expertise, Matulis said. The one-hour consultation will review the physical operation, identify best practices and find ways to implement them.

For safety reasons, the consultations will take place virtually during the pandemic, Matulis said.

In addition, businesses can participate in a voluntary self-certification program by completing a series of online modules at the Department of Labor website. Businesses that successfully complete the program can print a certificate to “show employees and visitors that necessary measures have been addressed to keep them safe and healthy,” according to the website.

The COVID safety program is open to any small business, including retailers, manufacturers and offices.

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